Who are the best opera composers of all time? We’ve discussed and debated and compiled our list of the top 10 composers who have had the greatest influence in shaping the opera world over the past 400 years. Scroll down to explore our selection of the best opera composers from Claudio Monteverdi, the father of opera, to Benjamin Britten who breathed new life into the form.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) – The Father of Opera
Monteverdi was an Italian composer who was a pioneer in the development of opera. Before Monteverdi came along the fledgling genre of opera was an academic exercise in the recreation of ancient Greek theatre. Then – bam! – Monteverdi invested it with huge emotions, conflicted characters, the most beautiful and intense music possible, and spectacular scenery. Opera as we know it today springs from his innovations.
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – King of the Baroque
When Handel started writing opera it had become bogged down in outmoded conventions and dry rules – each aria had to end with a repeat of its first section, for example. He made the conventions breathe again, added a dash of Italianate passion (he had lived and studied in Italy) and produced a series of works which are now recognised as masterpieces.
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) – Opera’s First Reformer
In Gluck’s time singers had grown so big for their boots that they sometimes demanded to perform whatever aria they liked in an opera. “No!” said Gluck. Opera should be a mirror to reality. It should be about dramatic truth and honest emotions. He pared down, simplified, intensified – and kicked out preening divas and divos.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) – Innovator and Genius
Duets had been a staple of opera for years; trios, too. Mozart created an unprecedented and unthinkably complex septet in The Marriage of Figaro, which is both intellectually dazzling and funny. His characters live with a new emotional warmth and depth. The finale of Don Giovanni is still unrivalled for its power to thrill and horrify. Opera took a leap forward with Mozart, one of the greatest opera composers, and all future composers have been in his shadow.
Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) – Comedy and Coloratura
Comedy, in opera, is one of the toughest nuts a composer can crack. But it came easily to Rossini, who invested stock comic plots and characters with a new wit and pizzazz. He liked simple plots, hummable tunes, and adored giving singers chances to show off with fiery passages of fast trills and scales now known as ‘coloratura’ passages.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) – Freedom Fighter
Verdi was one of the greatest Italian opera composers who is known for several operas including La Traviata, Otello, and Aida. Verdi understood as no-one before him how opera can have a political message: how a tuneful chorus could become a symbol of unity, or a thrilling aria a cry for freedom. As well as having hit tunes and great characters, Verdi’s operas have a metaphorical social message which keeps them alive for later generations.
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) – Saviour or Slayer?
Richard Wagner, one of the best opera composers, was a German composer who is best known for several complex operas including Tristan and Isolde and the Ring Cycle. Love him or loathe him, you can’t be neutral about him. Wagner changed everything about opera: how it was written, how performed, how staged, how long it could be, how symbolic. Some feel he pushed opera to a slow death: others that he opened up new realms of artistic, psychological, dramatic and musical possibilities. His importance, either way, cannot be overstated.
Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) – Master of Melodrama
Puccini was the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi. Opera began as a pursuit subsidised by princes. In the 19th century it became a commercial enterprise. As the public grew Puccini responded with unerring talent to their desire for shocking plots, sensational conflicts, and tearful death scenes in his operas. Opera took a new turn in his hands. His best known operas include La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot which includes ‘Nessun Dorma’ one of the best-known arias in opera.
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) – Opera about Opera
After his two savage and tragic masterpieces Salome and Elektra, leading German composer Richard Strauss began to look backwards and write operas about opera itself. Der Rosenkavalier is loosely based on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; Ariadne auf Naxos, and Capriccio are about the composition of lyric works. Opera reached a new stage of ironic self-referentiality.
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) – Artful Ambiguities
Just at the point when it seemed that opera had finally given up the ghost – when it seemed those big romantic outpourings of emotion were both dubious and a thing of the past – along came Britten to breathe new life into the form. Imaginatively fired by ambiguous characters and moral complexities (and a great writer of comic opera too), Britten proved that opera could survive in the age of Coca-Cola.